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Friday, February 22, 2019

Confidence and Incompetence

So this is a pretty fun topic.

A little while ago my mom was telling me this story about an neuro-surgeon named Christopher Duntsch who killed a plethora of people in bizarre ways, but no one knew whether to charge him for murder or manslaughter because they were all medical accidents, yet the cuts were so conspicuously wrong that it was as if he went out of his way to kill the patients he was operating on. But when he came to court, he explained his logic and how he knew everything that he was doing, but was dismayed when another surgeon came in and showed how the patients had died, and the look on his face said it all. It turns out that he wasn't a murderer, but a bad surgeon who was utterly convinced that he did everything correctly. This story was how I learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a study in social science which reveals that the more ignorant someone is on a topic, the more confident they become in their capabilities. Why? Because they know so little that they don't even know how much they don't know.

Likewise, this has the exact inverse effect, because once someone starts to develop an understanding of a subject, they realize just how complicated it is and lose confidence in their abilities.
Oh thank goodness, I'm in the green.

Vsauce had a pretty good metaphor for this; he said that the more you know, the less you know. If you were dropped off in some mystery location, and opened your eyes to a dark room with no light, you would have no idea how big or small that room was unless you were able to find a wall. If the light is everything you know and the darkness is everything you don't, and you had no light bulb, you might incorrectly assume the room wasn't too big. But then if you turned on a light bulb in the middle of the room, and it illuminated a circle around you, you could clearly see that the room is big enough to require more light. You'd see that the room was vast and that most of it was still dark, however big it was.

If your light grew even bigger, you might be surprised to see that the room was yet still larger and emptier than you thought, and in this way, the bigger your light grew the more darkness you'd be able to see.

This is the problem the Dunning-Kruger effect addresses. The 19th century philosopher Bertrand Russel mentioned this: "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."

How right he was. The thing is that with access to the largest databases in the world at our fingertips, we've actually become- not only dumber- but less knowledgeable in the first place. The problem with the internet is that it doesn't filter out information, and it shouldn't. For the purposes of freedom, there shouldn't be laws dictating who can say what on the Internet, besides maybe terrorist and bomb threats or anything equivalent to that. That means that all information, correct and wrong, can come your way. This makes it easier than ever to be bombarded with wrong information.

(I'm about to get political so skip the next two paragraphs if this doesn't interest you.)

One of the first people I think of as an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect is Alexandria Cortez, who is being attacked by both democrats and republicans for her lack of economic know-how. It's not just that she doesn't know what she's doing, it's that she has cocksure, unbridled confidence in her economic genius. Now, while she doesn't have economic understanding, she has millions of followers, making her a person of contention within the democratic party. The Washington Post- a far-left-leaning news outlet- recently came out with this headline, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an economic illiterate — and that’s a danger to America. Other left-leaning outlets have written similar op-eds about the young socialist, and even Snopes and Politifact- which have both been frequently accused of being liberally-biased by republicans- have set their sights on her claims and debunked almost everything she's ever said, including her thought process about the Pentagon losing $21 trillion in accounting errors when it was actually money that had been through multiple transactions, i.e., one dollar entering and leaving circulation several times, not $21,000,000,000,000 actually just sitting around somewhere.

Her lack of understanding as well has her dangerous over-the-top confidence has cost New York $27 billion. The city offered Amazon $3 billion in tax deductions in exchange for their new headquarters in Long Island City, and she scolded them on twitter saying that the city didn't want to give Amazon $3 billion that could be better invested in schools, public transportation, etc. She didn't understand that exempting Amazon of $3 billion in taxes was not the same as handing them $3 billion. It was estimated by economists all across the democratic party that Amazon would have generated more than $27 billion in revenue over the next several years, not to mention it would have created 40,000 new jobs- and that's 40,000 employed people who would be paying taxes, which would have lined up New York with even more money. It was completely symbiotic; Amazon would get a massive new headquarters and distribution center where it could bring in tons of new business in the New York area, and New York would be provided with 40,000 new jobs as well as billions of dollars in taxes. Literally everyone involved benefits from this business proposal. And then Alexandria came along and was like "Capitalism is evil, begone greedy capitalists! Keep your hands off of our $3 billion! We don't want you!" and now Amazon has retreated, taking its $27 billion and 40,000 jobs with it. A hilarious user on twitter commented (paraphrased), "Imagine if we applied her logic to pizza. A customer walks in with a coupon for buy 10 pizzas get one free, and says, 'Hi, I would like to buy 10 pizzas at $10 each, and I'd also like to use this coupon,' and then the employee replied, 'No! Get out of here with that evil coupon!' then went and bragged to the manager, claiming that they should be thanked for just saving the store $10." That's essentially what just happened, and it's that kind of ignorance that is really, really dangerous, and it seems that democrats are sick of her making them look bad and want nothing to do with her anymore.

Alright, political rant over.

Richard Feynman had a brilliant take on this concept: he said,
"– and pompous fools drive me up the wall. Ordinary fools are alright; you can talk to them and try to help them out. But pompous fools – guys who are fools and covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus – THAT, I CANNOT STAND! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!"

He's also been credited with, "I'm only smart enough to know that I'm dumb," and, "I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong."

I can always appreciate how humble and great Richard Feynman's attitude is.

If you look closely you'll see me trying to claw up the Valley of Despair.
To say that this affects academia, art and the sciences would be a colossal understatement. With art it's self-destructive and with science and academia it's a tumor. At least with art, only the confident fool is harmed, but with other areas of study it impacts everyone it comes in contact with.

We see the Dunning-Kruger effect interject itself into the arts in an often hilarious and entertaining way. Bad fan-fiction, terrible self-published works and modern art.

Don't peg me down for a jerk just yet, I'm not making fun of people who are new or inexperienced or anything like that. I'm making fun of people who don't know what they're doing but think they're the best thing since sliced bread.

From what I've witnessed, people have gradually become less competent and more confident the more I've observed, which is just a recipe for disaster right there. Obviously my take on it is purely anecdotal, but there is some substantial evidence that the Dunning-Kruger effect is permeating every field of knowledge more than ever.

And is art exempt from this? Of course not. If anything, the wider availability of new writers and artists has only made things much worse. As awesome as CreateSpace and IngramSpark are, it inevitably means that lots of people will pump out heaps of bad content thinking they're amazing and they're all going to be wildly famous. And like I briefly mentioned in my previous post, you can't couple unrealistic expectations of fame with unrealistic expectations of ease.

Me planting my flag on Mt. Stupid (2017, colorized)
I don't always agree with Prager-U but their video on modern art was pretty spot on.

To some extent this can be blamed on society's decline in standards, and things like participation trophies and telling everyone that their work is of equal quality no matter what, and while I won't deny that those things could have contributed, I don't think we actually have anyone to blame but ourselves. We aren't responsible for what others do, but we are responsible for how we conduct ourselves and react to others, and when we tell people that their writing is great even when it's horribly unedited and poorly thought out, we're only doing them a major disservice by setting them up for disaster later on down the road.

I'm currently on a mission to recruit as many beta-readers as possible, and one thing I like to do is show them my worst writing, usually bits that I wrote in a hurry and haven't ever gotten around to editing yet, and then ask for their take on it. If they praise me and tell me how awesome it is, then I know right away that they're just going to tell me what I want to hear and have no intention of actually pointing out critical flaws in the writing. But if they rip it apart, telling me how confusing and poorly-written the whole read was, then I know they're trustworthy.

Don't get me wrong, there's a big difference between ripping apart a writing passage critically and being mean. You can be honest yet kind with your critiques, and it's possible to be a jerk and offer nothing of value.

If someone says, "The part about the body coming to life was really well-written but there was never any explanation as to how Anne got her powers, and the next few scenes were really confusing since that was never explained and we still don't know what the body reanimating has to do with it," then they're probably just being honest. However if they say, "Your writing sucks and you'll never go anywhere in life," then they're not on your side. A good beta won't insult you personally but will point out objective flaws in your work that need to be addressed. And if you think that your writing is so good that it doesn't need to be beta-read or edited professionally, then I have bad news for you.
Don't be the reason for this post!
I'm not saying that no one can be proud of their work or optimistic and confident in their abilities. I'm only implying that we overestimate ourselves and underestimate others, and this can lead to massive disappointment down the road.

There is something called the "artist swing," which is a condition in which most creators either think that:

A) They're the greatest writer / artist / musician in the world,


B) They're the worst writer /artist /musician in the world and they should just crawl into a hole and die.

I'm not special, I get that swing all the time. I either feel like an amazing writer or a piece of poop. There is no in between.

And this brings me to my next point, which is something my English teacher told me my junior year of high school:

"You are never as good or as bad as you think you are."

Depending on which side of the swing you're on right now, you're either relieved to hear this or disappointed.

If this is true (and I promise it is), then that means that whenever we feel like total garbage, we should rejoice because we aren't nearly as bad as our insecurity tells us we are.

But on the other hand, when we think our work is so fantastic that nothing else can hold a candle to it, we're completely wrong and it isn't nearly as good as we think it is.

Talk about bittersweet, huh?

But I've found this advice to be extremely accurate. The more I write, the more I realize that I am neither the best nor worst writer, but somewhere in between. And this can be applied to just about anyone.

I know this type of stuff doesn't sound super motivating or inspiring, but sometimes you gotta hear the ugly truth.

Me forcing you to look at it.
But fear not, dear reader, for after tumbling down Mt. Stupid and landing in the Valley of Despair, you can begin your ascent up the Slope of Enlightenment towards the Plateau of Sustainability, and there you shall find peace (once you're done tormenting yourself).

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Tell Me What You Want

Since this is a new blog I've just been writing posts about whatever I want, but as I try to expand the user-base and get more interactions going on, I'd like to know your guys' thoughts. What is it that you want to read about? Is there any specific aspect to writing that you would like my take on? Do you enjoy my personal stories more or should it be more about writing as a craft?

This may be my platform but I want to share it with all of you. I'm currently averaging about 200 unique page views per post, which in my mind is enough people to warrant this question.

If I send this out and there's no suggestions, I'll just keep on rolling, but this is totally a democracy so feel free to pitch whatever you want within the realm of reason and it'll be considered.

Also in my post about Video Games I mentioned at the bottom that if enough people requested it, I'd upload a video of my secret talent. Since I'm not really getting any comments or community interaction as of yet, I think this would be a fun experiment. So I'll tell you what. If 40 different people comment on that post, I will upload a video of said talent on YouTube and link it here on the front page for everyone to see. In the event that it turns out more successful than I intended, I will perform whatever songs are requested to the best of my ability and upload them as well, and in addition, I'll pin the best one to the top of the homepage for all of perpetuity.

Another thing I wanted to mention is that this is an open forum. Anyone can discuss whatever they want in the comments. The comment section isn't there just for positive feedback (but I will graciously accept any that comes my way), you can speak up if you disagree with something or just wanted to share something interesting. And from now on I'll be doing this fun little thing where I drop a stupid yet highly polarizing question or topic into each comment section that anyone can respond to.

I think this is a good place to stop, so I'll see you all later.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

(Edit: this post was a total failure so forget everything that I said, thanks. -Future Dylan)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019


Who finally got a custom domain?


That's all I wanted to say, you may resume sitting around doing nothing while you wait for me to post again, which is what I imagine all of you do with your free time.


He looks like he's in distress, and that's funny.
Will Smith.

Chris Pratt.

Bob Ross.

The Oatmeal.

Jonathan Ames.

Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.



What do all of these people have in common? Their charm is totally off the charts. (Especially Shrek.)

But charm doesn't limit itself to people. Everything from stories, to places, to animals, to songs, to ideas can have charm. Not everything is charming but anything can be charming.

But of course, if everything can be charming, how come they aren't? Honestly, I don't know.

I know lots of those life coach guru-types will tell you that every little thing in life is this beautiful little thing to be cherished, but nope. I'm good. Maybe they're right, and everything has some merit or charm to it, but who's to say there isn't a hierarchy?  Maybe everything has some charm in it, but some things are more charming than others.

I actually value this, because if everything was wonderful and charming all the time we'd have no way to know it. We'd be too stupid to know the difference without something to compare it to. So it's a good thing we have things that aren't so charming so that we can appreciate the things that are. Where would Will Smith be without people like Kim Kardashian? How would we ever appreciate talk show hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Steve Harvey if not for guys like Jimmy Kimmel?

Once everyone is charming... No one will be!
A stark contrast between the bland and the delightful is exactly what makes them delightful in the first place. Do these people still have fans? Of course. Kim Kardashian and Jimmy Kimmel both have millions of followers, as does every other bland and uninteresting figurehead. But likeability is definitely a factor here.

Sure, someone could argue that likeability and charm are subjective, and therefore we can't distinguish between the good and the bad, but I call bullshit.

I agree that to every aspect of opinion there is at least some subjectivity, but to say that they can never be accurately distinguished is bologna.

In fact if anything it's more of a "You can't define it, but you know it when you see it" basis.

But even that might not always be true. There are at least some solid examples of things that have shown time and time again to be either charming or terrible.

Of course, it's possible for both to coexist to an extent, but the terrible almost always wins. And this is the case because a few bad things can ruin the entire thing, even if the rest is great. You could craft the most elegant looking cake in the world, but if you forgot the eggs, the whole thing is rubbish.

And this applies to people and art as well. One really bad thing can taint the rest of it.
Pictures You Can Hear, Vol. 1

With art it's a bit better, because something can be terribly flawed but still be lovable anyway. But with people we tend to be a little less forgiving.

Honestly that's what I hate most about Facebook. You think you like someone, then you see them posting stuff like this.

What makes charm an interesting topic to me is it's something that everyone enjoys but no one really talks about. This is especially true for men since so many guys are obsessed with their self-image. But I think that part of what makes someone charming is how little they take themselves seriously.

This is my problem with all those dating gurus that pop up on YouTube. A little while back I came across this one guy who popped up in my recommendation feed (you think YouTube might be trying to tell me something?) and after seeing how full of shit he was, I decided to take a look and see if all of the dating gurus were saying the same things (spoiler alert: they were). They all emphasize trying really, really hard to act sexy. But there's nothing charming about that, if anything it just comes across as disingenuous and a little sad, because we know whenever guys pull this kind of stuff it reeks of insecurity. I'm not disparaging sexiness or anything like that, I'm only pointing out that trying way too hard to look sexy is the exact opposite of attractive. Just trying too hard to appear like anything looks bad. I don't know any of these guys personally, but I doubt that Chris Pratt and Will Smith wake up in the morning fixated on making sure everyone knows how sexy and charming they are. Odds are they're just regular people who developed personality over time and stopped worrying about how others perceive them.

But of course, that's another part of the problem. Trying too hard to act like you don't care. When guys (and girls too, but it's safe to say it's probably mostly guys) go out of their way to try to make it look like they don't care, of course they care. No one is being fooled here. When someone generally doesn't care they won't go out of their way to make sure that you know just how much they don't care. It's really just asinine how so many guys think being an asshole or trying to assert dominance is going to get them tail or whatever.

I present to you Dylan's Immutable Laws of Charm™.

Part A: Things that are not charming.

Before we can understand what charm is, let's try to understand what isn't charm. Because all the personality in the world is all for nought if you make people cringe.

1. Trying too hard to appear a certain way. This can be anything from trying to be edgy or emo, to trying to look like an AlphaMale™ to trying to be the tough guy or the male feminist. If you have to be something you're not, and coo to yourself at night that you are that Alpha Male / Edge Lord etc., then it's not true. Sorry.

Rawr XD im so random!11!!1!
Rule numero 2. Any type of malice. While there will always be those who agree with you, displaying any type of malice against anyone is generally not charming. The thing is that you could be completely justified in complaining about that lousy coworker or that douche on the road, but it still makes you look bad. I know that sometimes we all need to vent, but complaining about people just seems wrong. It's not something that people like listening to, unless executed in a lighthearted way. We all know someone who complains nonstop or holds grudges against X people, but it seems so toxic and unproductive that it's hardly tolerable let alone likable. This goes for bashing people too. Even if the majority of people agree with you, bashing people isn't charming. We see this in all forms, big and small. Everything from a group of coworkers all bashing the same person behind their back to celebrities bashing Trump to stay cool with Hollywood (this works both ways, bashing Obama to stay cool with conservative friends isn't any better than what these celebrities are doing)*. Which leads me to my next point...

*That's not to say that you can't be angry about what political figures are doing or that you can never talk about it, but when it becomes obvious someone is only doing it to stay in the circle it loses its authenticity, and complaining about people in almost any context is turn off, including presidents and political figures like Trump and Clinton.

3. Gossip. Think of the person you know who gossips the most, and ask yourself if they're charming or likable. Gossip is ugly and inherently vapid. Who cares if Kim Kardashian got a new haircut? Or that Britney and Brad broke up? Honestly what effect does it have on me? Gossip and superficial tendencies come across as empty and void of anything valuable. And even if everyone else is doing it, they won't respect you any more for participating. In fact if everyone in a group is gossiping about someone and you're the only one who doesn't participate, on some level you might be perceived better. We generally don't trust people who gossip a lot, because we know to some extent that if they're gossiping to us about someone, odds are they're gossiping about us too.

If you've noticed a theme, it's basically that being inauthentic or showing any malevolent intention whatsoever is the definition of anticharm.

On the other hand, these things are charming.

1. Benevolence. When someone has completely innocent and relatable intentions and problems, we automatically like them more. I don't consider myself super charming or anything, but this is the one thing I think I have nailed down since I'm basically a man-child. All I want is to write, watch cartoons and get a new high score in Devil Daggers. I remember this one exercise with my church group where we were supposed to come out and say what our dream life would be like. And to say my wildest fantasy is a bit underwhelming would be an understatement. Maybe a lot of people would want to win the lottery and become famous or something, I just want a nice house with a family and lots of books under my belt. That's pretty much it. Maybe in my fantasy world I have a bunch of dogs and have a house in the woods or hills where the neighbors and us mind our own business and don't bother each other. Also in my fantasy world I'm married to Galatea, which I think is a pretty benign thing to daydream about since she's basically the aggregate of all the good in the world.

(Side note: if anyone from her YouTube channel stumbles upon this, I won't ask you to, but hypothetically if you wanted to bombard her comment sections telling her to marry me, I won't object.)

2. Self-deprecation. Nothing speaks volumes more about your attitude than how seriously you take yourself. I mean, life is too short to pretend you're important. If you can't laugh at yourself or your outrageous life, what's the point? And if you don't think your life is outrageous I'd wager that either it totally is and you've ignored it, or you're Kim Kardashian or Jimmy Kimmel, but how either of you famous figures found this blog is beyond me. Also I'm pretty sure Kim can't read. But that's okay, because I can't write.

(Side-side note: Casually Explained is the personification of flawless self-deprecation)

3. The third and final thing: whimsy. You know, that thing that kinda exists but no one can really define it. The dictionary defines whimsy as:

   playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor.

   "the film is an awkward blend of whimsy and moralizing"

But dictionaries are lame so here's my definition:

Whimsy: Behavior or ideas that are so childish, irreverent and imaginative that it demands complete and total adoration.

Anything that makes you do this:

Think BMO from Adventure Time.

This is where fiction comes into play.

Whereas things like avoiding gossip and having benevolent desires are character traits that apply specifically either to you in real life or to your characters in whatever it is you're writing, whimsy is so universal that it can permeate any person, place or thing. Where nouns are involved, whimsy can dwell. Worlds and stories can be whimsical by telling stories in a hilariously flippant way.

I'm kind of an odd writer (some might say that all writers are odd, but I see lots of writers who share the same oddities, so out of writers who are odd I am odd, or maybe I'm just trying too hard to be special and should just shut up before I make myself look worse) in that I don't have a genre of choice. While both A.S.H., or the abbreviation for A Spurious Hanging, an abbreviation that took more time to explain than to just say directly, and Desolation's Reach, or DR for short, because this is how you keep your sentences short and concise, are both of the thriller persuasion, they're executed extremely differently. One is a murder mystery and the other is an epic fantasy gore fest. D.R. is the incestuous love-child of Dark Souls and Agony.

And the story idea I've been obsessing about lately as I wrap up Desolation's Reach is a ridiculous and slightly sad comedy that I call The Pen Pal, which is about a married couple in 1994 who breaks up and decides to get a divorce on the second day of their two-week cruise, and lines are quickly drawn and alliances formed. Their strategic social battles will be the greatest spectacle on the battlefield since World War II, perhaps ever. Basically they both make friends with everyone else on board and everything goes to hell since they're trapped on the cruise ship for 12 more days, hating each other and themselves more and more as any trace of love they had in their youth deteriorates around them and they turn to substance abuse, sex and constant reassurance from their temporary cruise mates that they're doing the right thing when in reality they're both equally intolerable.

(I'm okay announcing my next story idea publicly because I'm already done outlining and I've already gotten some of the chapters as well as the synopsis done and timestamped digitally in my Google drive, so prepare to be sued by a very cheap lawyer with a mediocre success rate if you try to steal my idea!)

What does any of this have to do with whimsy? Nothing, I just wanted a captive audience to read about my ideas and think, "Wow, The Pen Pal sounds amazing, I can't wait to give Dylan my money so I can read it."

Man, you must feel like such a fool now!

(My actual point was that The Pen Pal is a prime example of whimsy, but my point wouldn't actually make any sense since the book is yet to be written and therefore no one has read it yet and would ever understand the reference, but by the time I realized what I was doing it was too late and I was already committed, so yeah. It made more sense in my head, like everything else I've ever said.)

I think an excellent example of a whimsical world (that isn't Adventure Time, because I'm pretty sure you guys are getting sick of me using AT as the standard for everything) is Don Quixote. It somehow manages to be completely outrageous in every way without ever doing anything that's too far a stretch from reality. Everything that happens feels ridiculous and hilarious but, somehow, entirely possible. As whimsical and hilarious as Don Quixote is, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain is probably even more whimsical, if such a thing was even possible.

By the way, can we take a moment to talk about how underrated that book is? Huck Finn gets all the attention (and it is a pretty great book) but A.C.Y.I.K.A.C is way better.

For those who haven't read it, A.C.Y.I.K.A.C was one of the first time travel stories ever written. It might have been the first, but I'm not completely sure. I'm no expert on the history of time travel books, but if I'm in one I'll go back in time and find out when the first one was written.

It's about a man from Connecticut (good God it took me like three tries to spell that correctly, I thought it was Connecticuit with an "I" like "circuit," because in my mind the state was "Connect-Circuit," because that totally makes sense) who wakes up in a grassy English field in the 500s, during the time the stories of King Arthur supposedly took place. And to his surprise, all the characters from the lore are real, except they're all frauds. Lancelot was just a random asshole who went around lying about his feats and bolstering his ego, Merlin was a con artist who used slight of hand and petty Criss-Angel-tier BS tricks to make people think he was a god, and King Arthur was the gullible moron who believed every word of it and proclaimed the virtue and feats of these charlatans to everybody. At one point the man is supposed to be put to death for blasphemy (when he points out that Merlin using vague horoscopes to predict peoples' futures isn't real magic), when he realizes that a solar eclipse is starting and tells them that he's the one blocking out the sun, and that he won't give it back to them until they set him free. They call him a liar and hurl a whole bunch of things at his person, until the solar eclipse starts and they panic, releasing him in a frenzy and demanding that he put the sun back.

If that doesn't sound whimsical then I don't know what does.

This post turned out way, way more rambly and directionless than I intended, but here we are. We made it, and you're alive. So I guess it's probably a good idea to end this thing before it gets too out of hand, huh?

I guess all I wanted to say was that charm comes in many shapes and forms, and even if we can't pin it down exactly, there are lots of things that are irresistibly charming. Why it took me  2,822 words to make that basic point is beyond me, but I hope you got some value out of this, to the equivalent of one US penny or greater. (I just know that some psychopath out there has to know if it's actually 2,822 words or not, and at least one of these people will check or attempt to count it, and that makes me very happy for some reason.)

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Pushing Through Obstacles

It's a working title but I think it speaks for itself.

I'd like to start by saying that there is nothing special about being a writer.

This might not be a very popular opinion, but I'll always opt to assert what I believe to be true over sweet little lies. As much as I'd like to believe that writers- including myself, of course, should I label myself as such- are special entities above the struggles of normal peasants, whose problems are deeper and more poetic, that's simply not the case. As much as we'd like to think that our stories are etched in gold and our words are dripping with honey, we're pretty normal and our problems are still relatively normal too. We get headaches, and insomnia, and anxiety, and mad at traffic, and frustrated with our work and school just like everyone else.
Your words will never be this yummy.

Don't get me wrong, writing is pretty fucking cool.

After all, how many people can say they've published a novel? Over 80% of Americans say they'd like to write a book someday, but less than 1/1,000 people actually do. At first I was confused by these numbers, as it was looking closer to about 1/480, not 1/1,000- until I realized I was looking at the number of books published each year, not the number of new authors every year. Since most books are written by someone who has written, or will continue to write, multiple books, that means that there are far fewer authors than there are books. Some figures are looking as low as 1/15,000 or less, which is quite daunting.

And if we're being honest with ourselves, most of the books that do get published- either traditionally or self-published on Ingramspark or CreateSpace, aren't very good.

I'm not trying to discourage you. But if I can do anything here today, it'd be to play up the hardships of novel-writing as much as possible, so that only the most dedicated remain and they can go in fully braced for the shitstorm of confusion and doubt that will inevitably come their way.

I'd like to bring up this article from the New York Times, which is a particularly volatile look at the publishing industry.

Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again.

What I can't stand about this article is the author's attitude and approach to the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, while I generally dislike most of what I read on the New York Times, I don't have a personal vendetta against them. Every now and then I see an article by them that I actually respect and enjoy, such as a few of their better ones on net neutrality- a thing that I found myself having to agree with democrats on as my own party didn't approve of this concept.

But I freaking hate this piece.

The author basically goes on to say, "Yeah, I wrote 14 books, but I'm special, and most Americans fail, so you shouldn't even try." In his exact words right at the top:

According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them -- and that they should write it. As the author of 14 books, with a 15th to be published next spring, I'd like to use this space to do what I can to discourage them.

Let's also not forget...

Don't write that book, my advice is, don't even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs.

True words of wisdom. You heard it from the God of Journalism, folks. Instead of getting your ideas down on paper and fulfilling your dreams, just let it claw away at you for decades until you're old and wilting as you come to the realization that you never pursued your dreams and will die having never even attempted them because Joseph from the New York Times told you so.

It seems pretentious and condescending. I can't downplay just how difficult writing can be, and is, but I'd never discourage anyone from trying. I'd only warn them, telling them how insurmountable and crazy it is, but if they're still determined afterwards, then good on them.

However, this article did do one excellent thing; it doesn't acknowledge itself enough to be aware that it's actually filtering out writers.

Someone who was really determined to write a novel wouldn't give up because some pretentious snob at the New York Times told them to. Like me, they'd read that article, go "Fuck you Joseph" and write their book anyway.

I'd like to stress that this is an old article from the early 2000s, so some of the numbers and figures have changed, as has the New York Times as a whole, but the general concepts haven't changed too much.

*I'm about to go on a brief and slightly political tangent, so skip these next two paragraphs if you you'd like*

Just a quick reminder to those who might enjoy the New York Times, I don't have any issue with you. I believe in transparency, so despite my more conservative leanings, I don't dislike this article simply because of its source. Had it been written by some guy at Breitbart I would have been just as livid (more so as I would probably feel betrayed by my own party). One example of my views actually falling out of alignment with the norm for the right was when Trump joined the "video games cause violence" bandwagon. As someone who supports him, but is also a gamer, I felt a little betrayed. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a complete deal breaker or anything like that, but it really pissed me off. Anyone that knows me knows how much I love the POTUS, but this really set me off. So while my views might be different from yours, dear reader, just know that I won't blindly follow what the rest of the group does, and I'm not partial to any one source or anything like that, as my views are generally rigid and unwavering- meaning that I won't change them to fit what others in my party might be doing or saying.

I often reference Chris Brecheen over at Writing About Writing here on this blog, but I've recently been disengaging more and more from his platform as he becomes more and more hostile to conservatives. I love his advice on writing but recently they've become too politically charged, and he's started openly attacking anyone who has different opinions from him in his posts. And it sucks because I donated to him regularly, only to log on and see him calling me racist, sexist and stupid. So I've stopped donating money and I hardly read him anymore. But he has taught me how not to do that, so I've decided to take precautionary measures against becoming "that guy." Whenever I feel something I'm discussing has some bearing on politics, or vice versa, I want to respectfully share my thoughts without shoving them down your throats, or going after you if you happen to be left-leaning. I want to be able to share my opinion, as this is my blog after all, but I don't want to isolate you or make you feel like your views don't matter if they don't align with mine. So to make amends for what Chris has done, I'd like to extend my hand and welcome any liberals or centrists reading who have graciously tolerated my ramblings thus far, and just know that we can agree to disagree and I won't disrespect you or write off your opinions. That's why I will always caveat my political ideas to separate them from the writing advice, because I do believe that the two should exist independently, and that I shouldn't try to conflate them. I also believe in separating art from artist; despicable people have created amazing art, and some of the best people have not. It's a sad fact of life, but the quality of a person's character, or their beliefs, doesn't necessarily affect their creative ability. So as such, I will always separate my opinions from fact, so that the reader can choose which parts they're interested in reading.

Anyway, back to what I was saying.

There are a few serious roadblocks that need to be conquered in order to publish a book.

These include, but are not limited to:

1) Inexperience. You don't know where to begin- but worst of all, you don't know any of the other steps either. On the off chance you do find a starting point, you never know what to do next. So you do nothing at all.

2) Motivation. Even if you think you have all the basics down (but trust me, you're always learning something new. Just ask Stephen King), writing won't ever be convenient. There will always be a million reasons not to write. And they aren't all just excuses either, many of them are legitimate reasons. For example, last week I didn't get any writing work done, and each day I had a seemingly valid reason. The first day I was sick, and the next I hadn't slept and could barely stay awake, let alone craft a coherent sentence. The next few days I continued to not write anything because I had ear-splitting headaches- and then I still had the headaches but had a bigger time slot to write, yet I didn't because I hadn't written in so long that I didn't quite remember where I left off, so I opted not to rather than trying to resume in a disjointed way.

Obviously, this type of procrastination can't last forever- except it totally can. Setbacks like this have stopped entire writing careers, and every day you go without writing only makes it harder to start again. So no matter which stage you're in- looking at a blank page or trying to resume where you left off days, weeks, months or years ago, there is no time better than now write. The sooner you start, the sooner the habit can become easier.

3) Time. This ties right into #2, because non-writers seem to have the notion that writers must have a lot of free time on our hands. Unless you're a famous enough writer to make a living purely on your writing alone, which is only a microscopic sliver of all writers, you don't have free time. Almost all writers are just regular people- moms and dads, teachers, military troops, cops, doctors, construction workers, prostitutes, you name it- all sorts of plebeians. We have college and day jobs and family to take care of just like everybody else, and we're expected to whip out novels on top of that.

Writers don't have free time to write, they make time. If you want to write for an hour a day, then wake up an hour earlier and write before your usual daily duties, or afterwards if that works better for you. If losing an hour of sleep is too much, then compensate by going to bed an hour earlier.

There's so much focus on this clock that nothing else exists.

I'm going to tell you that writing has to be your number one priority in life. If you have a long distance relationship, kids, or a job or activity that requires your attention as much or more than writing, then I won't hold it against you for choosing those paths. It's your life and you should prioritize whatever you need to. But if you're willing and able, and actually want to be a writer, then writing has to be a priority. Time is the most valuable resource a person has because it's the only thing that can never be given back. So invest your time wisely.
If we're being honest here, just writing this blog is a huge calculated risk. I had to start knowing that I was going to have to make room for it in addition to work and school, as well as the hour I set aside every day to write (except for the hiatus I mentioned previously, which I am now terminating). Yet it was a risk that I carefully thought over and committed to. Did I have to commit to it? Is it possible for me to just have started blogging casually to test the water? I mean if you want to be technical about it, sure. But I've started and abandoned so many "blogs" and various projects that I said "Fuck it" and did an all-or-nothing ultimatum, so here we are. I've deserted so many different projects that I've grown sick of my own bullshit, so if I was going to try I had to go all-in.

Maybe I'll just test it real qu-
It's also hard because things like  GTX 1080s and Netflix exist, but those are temptations that must be relinquished in order to be a Writer™.

A lot of people want to be a "writer" but don't want to write. This irony is the very reason why 81% of Americans want to write a book but next to none ever will, and most of the books that do get published were written by the same few people. It's why famous authors are such a rare breed compared to other platforms. How many authors are famous today? Famous enough for just about everyone to know about them? Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Green, James Patterson, Suzanne Collins maybe- there's only a few that everyone knows, and maybe a dozen that avid bookworms collectively know about. Even on platforms like YouTube most young people know dozens of famous YouTubers. You have your Pewdiepies and Markipliers, your JaidenAnimations and Domics, your Jacksepticeyes and Yogscasts- I could easily rattle off a hundred more. Vsauce, RealLifeLore, Logan Paul, Rhett and Link, Matthew Santoro... you get the idea.

So if you've idolized the idea of being a Writer™ but have no desire to write, then your resolve is as weak as your perception of fame. Hell, if fame is all you want, there's a plethora of easier and faster ways to do it. You could easily become locally famous by pulling a Florida Man, but there are ways to become famous that are even faster and more demeaning than that.

So if you just sit around fantasizing about being a famous writer, and go around telling people you're a writer without ever writing any meaningful amount of content, you've made a terrible mistake and you're probably stupid.


That's not to say you can't do both, you can write a lot and also have wet dreams about book signings (like I do), but of course the one and only requirement is that you write. That's it. I'm not a gate keeper, I'm not going to tell you that only fiction / nonfiction writers are "real" writers, nor will I claim that screenwriters and playwrights don't count- if you write, you're a writer. That's it.

But a lot of people couple unrealistic expectations of fame with unrealistic expectations of ease, thinking that it will be easy, that their story idea is so good that it will become an instant hit, even if they've only written two pages in 10 years and have no real feedback on their writing whatsoever, because they don't need constructive criticism, they're an artist.

Now let me ask you this if you're that guy.

How many people became famous by not doing the thing they're famous for?

How many famous actors don't act?

How many famous YouTubers never upload*?

*Some YouTubers do really big videos at a time and don't upload often or too consistently, but they've often been around long enough to have pumped out a decent amount of content. For example the animators like JaidenAnimations and Domics only upload once a week or two since animating takes forever, but a couple videos a month is more than enough to reflect that they work on their videos a lot.

When put into that context, it seems pretty ridiculous that anyone would think they could become famous by not doing the thing they wish to be famous for, which is exactly what's happening with all these people who want to be famous writers but don't want to write.

And while we're on the topic, fame shouldn't be the goal here. If you want to write, do it for the sake of writing, not because you want to be famous. Because like we covered earlier... that's not going to happen. Write because you want to write, and for no other reason. Don't write for money or fame because both will be denied you.
"I don't need to work! My idea is a guaranteed success!"

4) Business. Some people will miraculously make it past every other pitfall in one piece, and after slaving away at a manuscript for years, writing and rewriting everything a dozen times, and reading countless pages of excruciating criticism, they'll finally have a book that's ready to publish.

Then nothing.

They don't know how to get it formatted, how to get a cover, how to set up distribution; and even if they get all those things figured out, they might not have a clue how to market whatsoever (that's where I'm at). Sure, I've watched all the YouTube videos, all the Jenna Morecis and John Greens explaining how to market a book successfully, but carrying it out is a lot easier said than done. Not to mention marketing requires money, which is something a lot of writers are in short supply of. (See: Squidward.)

This is because creative endeavors like writing, painting, performances, etc. are usually not taught in tangent with business. People who studied their craft for hours on end often are just ordinary people, and many of them didn't have the fortune of taking business and marketing classes, so they have no idea what they're doing. I can't offer a solution (because if I knew I'd be popular right now) but this is an obstacle you'll inevitably have to face somewhere in the publishing process, and it's kind of a bitch.

There are many others obstacles- general incompetence, conflicting advice, a lack of resources, you name it- but really it just boils down to how badly you want to succeed.

If we're being honest here, there's no such thing as talent. Sure, there are those who are fast learners and might catch on to stuff more quickly than others, but that's about it. No one is born with an inherent God-like writing skill. Stephen King wasn't born holding a fountain pen in one hand and a book deal in the other.

Skilled writers are just people who invested countless hours into practicing and perfecting their work to the best of their ability. It's true that some peoples' best is better than others, but that has less to do with talent and more to do with their understanding of quality.

In fact, calling that type of skill "talent" is almost an insult, even if it isn't meant to be. When someone slaves away at a paper, and it's no good, so they pile more and more hours onto it until it finally looks good, and someone reads it saying, "Wow, I wish I was this talented," it's almost an insult to the amount of work they put into it, because it makes it sound like they just whipped it up because they're so talented when in reality they agonized over it for great lengths of time until it wasn't terrible anymore. The word "talent" makes it sound like they just have it, they were just born with it or something, completely ignoring the rote of writing. And this can be said for any piece of work in any field.

If you ever see a painting that blows your mind and you want to compliment the artist, don't tell them they're talented, just say, "Wow, you really put a lot of work into this and it shows." That will make their week.

There's no talent required. There's no MBA or degree or certification needed. You don't even need talent. Just work every day through each obstacle, investing yourself and holding nothing back.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

P.S. I just discovered a feature that lets me see which countries I'm being read in, and apparently 15 of you are reading this from Germany! How some Germans discovered this obscure blog of mine (which I am yet to get a domain for, but rest assured, I'll acquire one) is beyond me, but glad to have you on board. There's a translation feature at the top, is that what you guys are reading? If so maybe you can comment below and let me know if it works, or if the German translation is rubbish. Maybe some of you are reading this in German right now for all I know. Anyway, haben sie einen guten tag!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Little Details

This little guy deserves some recognition.
It's all too easy to get swept up with all the Big Things that we forget to appreciate the LittleThings™.

It's understandable that given all the complexities and wild absurdities of life, we'd be too hyper-focused to notice anything. It's for this very reason that companies are trying harder than ever to grab peoples' attentions. It's why people like Jake Paul do stupid shit for publicity and half the content on the Internet looks like this:

It's why tasteless, empty channels like WatchMojo thrive in an increasingly vapid environment.

It's why we want instant, gratifying results from everything we touch, expecting nothing less than instant information when we touch our device or an immediate reply when we text someone. (Don't mind me, I'm just filler text to prevent hanging words.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm not here to give a lecture on the dangers of technology or the deplorable youth of today or anything like that. I don't want to ruin all the things you love. I'm not Adam Conover.

While being an enormous fan of tech myself, even I can acknowledge that we've been coddled to the point where we expect instant stimuli from everything we do, even if that stimuli is as shallow as a puddle.

We'd rather get briefly excited by a gimmicky thumbnail, knowing that we'll be disappointed, than risk going out of our way to find meaningful content.

And one thing that this affects is the minute, scrupulous detail that can instantly enhance any core experience.

And companies don't seem to realize this. They're so focused on delivering a "streamlined" (which is code for basic and uninspired) experience that gives a short, temporary high that they fail to realize that, like the products and services they're peddling, their profits and positive feedback will only be brief and short-lived.

Think about it. Think of a movie or song that was the Internet rave for a hot minute then instantly became obsolete and irrelevant. Odds are you can think of many examples.

Yet, recent history has shown again and again that customers and consumers actually prefer deeper and more well-developed pieces than instant gratification. Because in our increasingly vapid environment, meaningful content has become scarce, and we're starving for quality.

Short lived culture trends are to orgasms what detailed works are to long-term relationships.

Despite the cultural leaning to these quick bursts of excitement, society responds much more to works that have extensive attention to detail.

For example, Avatar took a whopping 10 years to make and displayed a staggering level of quality and attention to detail, making it one of the only movies in history to make billions of dollars, followed closely only by movies like Titanic and Gone With the Wind, and more recently, Infinity War. Compare that to movies like San Andreas, which was popular for like, a week, and then faded into obscurity. And while San Andreas was good just for entertainment value (i.e., just watching buildings collapse), it offered no deeper story or meaningful characters, so while everyone loved it for a minute, it will never be considered a classic or one of the greats.

The thing is that a movie doesn't even have to be objectively excellent to become a classic. For example, The Princess Bride hardly makes sense, the characters are cheesy and the plot is all over the place, and let's not forget the occasionally horrible acting and effects. Yet this movie became an instant classic anyway despite these faults.

Is the movie objectively great? Not at all.

Will I ruthlessly attack anyone who says they don't like it? Of course I will. The movie is simply too lovable to care about objective quality. They injected just enough clever lines, well-choreographed scenes, and subliminal jokes to become a quintessential part of cinema. Half the time you don't know whether it's a movie that's so bad it seems like a spoof, or a spoof so good at subtlety that all the humor flies over your head.

Yet, when projects do inject a remarkable amount of detail, they usually become fan favorites.

For example, GTA V is a game that came out way back in 2013, and is still one of the most played and most talked about games in the community. Why? Lots of reasons, like the gameplay style and great story-telling, but mostly because the game is so massive and so packed with detail that it's actually mind-blowing.

Take a game like World of Warcraft, which has a ridiculously large map that's over 320 square kilometers, for example. The map is absolutely massive, and players who have spent years in the game have yet to visit every location, but the game is dying.

No, it's not dead- you'll still find millions of people in WoW, but nowhere near the amount of gamers who play GTA V. Because while the WoW map is impressively expansive, it's pretty empty. Don't get me wrong, I'm not attacking the game. I think that WoW is an excellent game considering it came out way back in 2004, but if we're being completely honest, most of the game is empty. It's just pushing buttons while your character attacks a poorly-scripted AI in a cartoony world with very little detail.

This isn't Blizzard's fault of course, in fact the game was leagues ahead of most other 2004 games. It just doesn't come close the amount of detail that went into GTA V.

Compare these two in-game screenshots.

Don't crucify me yet. This is not a graphics war. I'm not a bumbling fool who will tell you that GTA V is better than WoW because it has better graphics. I'm only saying that GTA V has a better world. It's possible for a game with poor graphics to display attention to detail with other areas of the game, like the story-telling or characterizations.

And of course, the exact inverse is equally possible- there are plenty of games that have good graphics but are unimpressive because of how little variety there is in the environments. No, GTA V isn't just more impressive to explore because the graphics are better, it's because of the incredible attention to detail. Every little crack and crevice in the game- every rusted pipe, every broken window, every little nook and cranny, was meticulously hand-crafted from scratch. Look at the screenshot above for example. Someone had to sit there for hours and hours on end creating every little pixel of that pothole. And they had to do that with every other texture in the game. 

I know I may sound like it, but I'm no fanboy. In fact I've never really played GTA V. I don't own the game and I've only played it a few times at some friend's house for like, 20 minutes. I only know that the game has incredible detail.

And I firmly believe that Rockstar's dedicated design team and craftsmanship is the driving factor in why this game was so popular and has retained so much longevity. They did what most other games don't do- they payed attention to the little things.

And the thing is, that there are more little things than big things. Hell, all the little things combined make up much more than the big ones. For example, Bethesda games- before the disgrace that was Fallout 76, that is- have always had horrible bugs and glitches that no other game could get away with. This is a BigThing™, but the community didn't care, because the side quests and easter eggs were so good that we could overlook something big like their ancient, needs-to-be-replaced-ASAP game engine as long as they retained their standard for craftsmanship with the plot and characters. Skyrim is incredibly buggy and unoptimized, yet it's one of the most cherished games of all time. We cared more about the overall attention to detail in their games than the graphics, or even the gameplay itself (looking at you Fallout 3 and New Vegas).

But this isn't always the case. Sometimes movies, books, and video games will do an outstanding job and display impressive craftsmanship, but will never take off. But this isn't the result of poor effort or a lack of artistic talent; if anything this is a symptom of bad or non-existent marketing, or studios that are too small and inexperienced to get the connections they need to get their product out there. This applies to books too, as there are sure to be millions of wonderful and incredible books out there that we will never discover because they never made their way into Barnes and Noble or had a movie adaption.

This is why strategic marketing and clever sales tactics are important, but that's not what this is about.

So how does one go about craftsmanship in this way? How can someone create a rich story with a world that is as convincing as it is detailed?

I think the answer might be more simple than you think.

Start from the ground up.

I'm going to compare writing to painting for a moment here.

If you've followed me thus far, you're probably familiar with my fondness for Bob Ross.

One thing Bob Ross teaches is his unique technique, which is popular now but at the time was not.

Rather than paint everything he wanted to in order- i.e., painting a tree, then a rock, then some grass, etc., he did everything in layers. He did the furthest shadows and background colors for the entire painting, then moved up a layer and did some more colors and shapes on top of the background, then added a foreground, and next thing you knew those seemingly random colors and blurs became a beautiful painting before you could say "How?" It's like watching a magic trick. One second it's just some random color blobs, and the next it's an incredible painting of Mount Everest.

Stories work the same way.

Rather than trying to write the entire story, characters and dialogue all at once, just start with the bare basics. The first draft should almost read like a screenplay.

Draft one:

John entered the room. He sat down and asked Sally how she was doing.

Next, focus on one specific area, like verbiage.

Draft two:

John strolled in and slumped into the chair next to Sally, asking her about her project.

Next, you can add more specifics to the conversation.

"Hello again!" John exclaimed as he strolled in and slumped down in the chair next to Sally. "How's your Digital Design project going? Did Mr. Phillips give you that extra day you asked for?"

Maybe with the next draft you can add specifics to the environment or character / action descriptions.

Draft three: The red door slammed against the wall as John strolled in, exclaiming "Hello again!" as he slumped into the chair next to Sally. "How's your Digital Design project going?" he asked as he took a sip from her coffee, holding eye contact. "Did Mr. Phillips give you that extra day you asked for?"

I know this is a gross over-simplification of the process, but I hope my point is clear.

Rather than trying to make everything perfect the first time around, just start with one or two important areas of focus, and with each draft add a new layer of narrative or detail, so that the story and writing style grows organically and each element gets the love and care it deserves.

The truth is that if you try to do everything at once- writing every aspect of the story chronologically from beginning-to-end, some areas will be woefully overlooked. Maybe some parts of the story will have great dialogue but poor world-building, while other scenes might have great descriptions but poor dialogue. If you tackle each aspect one at a time, and dedicate each draft to improving that one element, then each aspect of the story will get an extensive amount of care and you can do them all right the first time.

Yes, doing multiple layered drafts may seem too time-consuming for a writer on a schedule, but it should save you time in the long run. Each draft will become cleaner and more professional, and you won't have to waste countless hours trying to clean up the mess that you made in previous versions of the story. Each version will automatically be better because you already ensured that all the dialogue was good in the first draft, that all the world building was good in the second, that all the little actions and head nods were good in the third, and so on and so forth.

Sadly, I didn't discover this writing technique until a few months ago when I started watching Bob Ross and it finally clicked.

This means that my first draft is way messier than it had to be, because had I started with the bare basics and worked my way up from there, I wouldn't have to clean up this monstrous mess I've created. I'm on the second draft now and there's a massive amount of re-writing that has to be done. Rather than simply adding to and expanding on what I've already written, I find that I both have to add to some things, rewrite some things entirely, and completely delete or otherwise remove others. It's a bit of a disaster, but I think the core story is good enough to work with.

While most painters only paint one layer, they're agonizing over making that one layer perfect, while they could easily do multiple layers and make the process instantly easier and more effective.

Writing is the same way.

This is what your writing should look like. A lemon.
Don't agonize over every detail on the first draft (because you will inevitably fail anyway), just start with the surface of your story and gradually work your way up from there. As each draft improves you'll also have more room for creativity in how you want to go about writing certain aspects of your story, as each element will be focused on individually and nothing will be put on the back burner. And trust me when I tell you that your story will better for it.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.